I didn’t enjoy watching The Conjuring 2 either. But that’s not because it’s a blot on humanity like The Boss. It’s because I’m a little bitch. Just like the first movie, this is a technical horror directing master class from James Wan that makes me want to curl up into a ball and die. What fun! It’s not unreasonable to say that James Wan is among the best horror directors working today and he shows a deep understanding of classic horror movie cinematography and pacing in this latest outing. However, that is not to say the film doesn’t have a few issues, some even with the direction. The Conjuring will go down as a modern classic, no questions asked, but its sequel won’t quite reach the same heights. The Conjuring 2 is not all demon nuns and crushing tension, figuratively and literally, which highlights some issues in its writing and also brings up some interesting areas of discussion with regards to the 21st century horror scene.
The film opens with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprising their roles as Ed and Lorraine Warren, as they intervene in the Amityville haunting in 1975. Like so many Catholics before her, Lorraine has a bad experience with a nun in a basement and she convinces Ed that they should go easy on the whole exorcist thing for a bit. Cut to Enfield, England and ghostly shenanigans are afoot in the Hodgson household with an old man bothering kids at bed time. This calls for the Warrens to get on the scene with Ed promising Lorraine that if the situation is bad they won’t get involved. On arrival they realize the situation is bad and they get involved. However, the question of whether the Hodgsons are faking this haunting for publicity hovers over the situation so they must gather proof before performing an exorcism.
It’s important to note that the Hoax vs. Real conflict only makes sense in the confines of the story and it doesn’t mean anything to the audience because we’ve seen the ghost haunting this family. There’s no debate for the audience and that’s one of the few failings of this film. It’s representing a true story so it has to represent all the hoax accusers as well as the believers but the film poorly incorporates it into its narrative because it was more concerned with its admittedly great scares. I think what would have been more interesting would be if the film redesigned its first act in order to legitimately use the Hoax vs. Real conflict as a secondary but equally legitimate source of tension. Wan and company would have had to get rid of some top notch scenes in order to do this but some times in film you have to kill your darlings in order to create the best product. It’s not like Wan wouldn’t have been able to create the crushing tension that would keep us paralyzed in our seats. Basically I think there was a more interesting narrative to be found in this script.
But do you know what makes up for a disappointing script? An awesome 1970s British rock/disco soundtrack! A horror movie plays a Bee Gees’ song unironically and isn’t that the weirdest sentence of the day. The music choices aren’t the only lighter elements to the film with plenty of scenes that could be lifted straight out of a normal family drama coming in the second half. And neither interrupt the flow of the film and do you know why? Character. The film develops character. I know what you’re thinking. If character development is something to get excited about rather than just be expected then we are in a sad state of affairs indeed. But this is the modern horror genre we are talking about here. Horror, as a genre, often forgets that characters are a fundamental part of film making and the films were made entirely about premise and jump scares. The Conjuring 2 has concrete characters with real problems outside of the main conflict that would have been perfect to drive that Hoax vs. Real conflict but what do I know?
It must be said though that the lighter elements in the second half, character filled as they may be, weaken the film as a whole because of how the damage the tension. I think this is partially due to the fact that there is disproportionate number of them in the second half of the film when compared to the first half. Stakes and tensions are supposed to rise as a film progresses and I think that there were far too many moments of relief in the second half for this to effectively happen. It could have been at least partially resolved through some clever direction of one or two scenes. In particularly the scene where Ed warren serenades the children with Elvis covers.
There is one more problem and it’s the movie showing its hand too much. Monsters become less scary the more we see of them (see The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise for an example of this) and we see a lot of the monsters in The Conjuring 2. The Nun in particular loses a lot of power as the film goes on despite how meticulously crafted its appearances are and I feel this is a mistake that really could have been avoided. Giving us something as concrete as the Nun to fear in the first place is the wrong move. It’s a demon. It’s a satanic manipulator so could we not have had glimpses of it but not the multiple full body shots that we got. For a film that was so good 80% of the time at scaring the hell out of me, it made some rookie mistakes.
I know I’m giving out about this movie a lot but that’s only because I care. James Wan has so much potential going forward that I want to see him shine as bright as possible. I said in the opening that he has a great understanding of horror cinematography and pacing and by God he does. The characters are positioned in the shot in such a way that it leaves plenty of space behind and to the side of them. This puts in the viewer an expectation that something is going to happen in that space and thus automatic tension is created. Most of the time, nothing needs to happen in the background. All it has to do is be there, creating the potential for scares. On the subject of pacing his scares this man is a king. Do you know the false jump scare, real jump scare trope that has plagued the horror genre over the years? You can picture it. The character will hear a noise and walk down the dark hallway into the kitchen, while the music slowly builds. The character will hear the noise coming from inside the cupboard. They will tentatively pull it open as the orchestra rears back, getting ready to sting. The door opens and Mittens the cat jumps down and the music stops. The character gets a small fright but smiles to themselves relieved before turning to the side and seeing a giant roaring demon standing six inches in front of them while somewhere in the distance a lightning bolt hits a drum set in a tumble dryer. Can we all agree that’s a bullshit trope that needs to die? No we can’t because the existence of the inferior horror director has given James Wan the power to use our knowledge of the genre to his advantage when constructing scenes. You big silly.
Let it be known that the way forward is clear. That not every scene in a horror movie involving supernatural activity needs to end in a jump scare. Sometimes you can use your audience’s knowledge of worse films to make them expect a scare where none is coming in order to create a boulder of tension in the pit of their stomachs. What I forgot to mention is how well this movie sets up its horror dominoes before the haunting starts. I can see and hear how the set and props will be used and, hand on heart, I have never been more afraid of a toy fire truck in my life. My favourite scene incorporates everything I’ve talked about. The clever horror cinematography, the cultural expectation of when a scare should come and the sound of the firetruck. It was probably one of the easier scenes in the movie to do as it was just a side ways tracking shot going two steps right and two steps left over and over again but what it achieves is amazing. James Wan, I salute you.
I think I talked enough about The Conjuring 2 for now. You can all return to your families and await my summon. In order to hear that summon you may want to follow me on twitter here: